December 12, 2012

The sensual world

Andrea Arnold shot her version of Wuthering Heights in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, with a handheld camera, no music on the soundtrack and little dialogue. The effect can be like watching a strange, grimy home movie shot on the Yorkshire moors, somehow unearthed after 200 years. Everything is immediate and almost pre-literate – we are constantly in the present, and time elapses and leaps with little warning. Boldly, Arnold’s Heathcliff is a black boy (Solomon Glave then James Howson) found on the streets of Liverpool, a slave port. There are two Cathies: the younger (Shannon Beer) is more convincing than the older (Kaya Scodelario). All is rawness, mud and rain, the cruelty of nature and the cruelty of others. There is a heaviness to the storytelling, a sense that the world is confined to the horizon and ruled by seasons and weather, and an impressive subversion of starchy prestige period film conventions (some precedents: Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley, Michael Winterbottom’s Jude, Jane Campion’s Bright Star), while the epic scale you might expect is compressed. Arnold’s previous film, Fish Tank, was itself a refreshment of kitchen sink clich├ęs about a trapped, bullied child. The theme comes back here, stronger than any romance that the title’s history promises.